Om Hip Hop
Zeph + Azeem
There’s a lot of shitty hip-hop stinking up the airwaves and video screens of America. It’s backed up by corporate money and political weakness — a fake and falsified concept sold to captive audiences in a vacuum of ignorance and poverty to brainwash them away from real action and toward self-destructive activity. Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another is that maybe the artists who predominate and the audience they serve truly are sociopaths, and the gangsta ethos is the best this broken generation can do. The latter view is used to animate the rising tide of opposition to hip-hop’s more unsavory aspects, from its use of demeaning language to its open promotion of criminality and other socially derelict conduct. The tragedy of this attitude is that it discounts the vast array of quality hip-hop that doesn’t dwell in the darkness.
The Bay Area of California has made significant contributions to the art, many of which have been made over the past decade under the aegis of Om Records. Om Hip Hop Volume One is, as the title implies, the first compilation of material released by Om Hip Hop, a new division of Om Records. Its 15 tracks cover plenty of stylistic ground, all of which is thoroughly underground and “backpacker” in nature. That used to be bad news for profit-minded artists, but the good news now is twofold: the underground is rising higher every year, and backpacks are useful tools for waging cultural warfare.
The compilation includes cuts from nine different acts, including Colossus, Zion I and The Grouch, The One, J. Boogie’s Dubtronic Science and Raashan Ahmad of Crown City Rockers. The music is solid enough — more interesting than “dope,” per se; that is, listeners are more likely to dwell on the beats than the rhymes in most cases. One clear exception would be Ladybug Mecca, formerly on Digable Planets, sounding downright mainstream on “Dope Starr.” Razeem DeVaughn provides the hook, and the vocals hark back to the vastly underrated “Blowout Comb.” Erykah Badu brings real star power in collaboration with Strange Fruit Project on “Get Live,” while “Go Left” teams E Da Boss with The Gift of Gab and Lateef the Truth Speaker for a rousing party track that could appeal to fans of E-40 and the Hyphy style.
Two of the songs on Om’s compilation are from the new album by Zeph and Azeem. “Play the Drum” is probably the single best song on either CD — that or “Dope Starr” from the comp. It’s one of the few five-star hip-hop tracks of the year. Their album’s title track, “Rise Up,” which leads things off, is less successful, but things pick up quickly on “Ten Steps Ahead” and “Come One Come All.” By this point their sound has begun to congeal, and Azeem’s lyrical dexterity has started to come out.
The mix of Miami bass and Havana horns gives “That Type of Music” a weirdly appropriate feel, while “Ay Mami” plays those horns against a more orthodox percussion pattern that evokes the feel of marching bands and their drum lines. Zeph’s beats on this album are a thing of beauty; they hold up against any collection from any producer this year. These songs are made for a slow ride down South Beach.
Things slow down a little bit heading into the album’s second half. “Here Comes The Judge” (not to be confused with the songs by The Make-Up or Sammy Davis, Jr. by the same name) is built around a Nina Simone sample in the hook. “Time To Wake Up” brings sultry dancehall flavor, courtesy guests Joyo Velarde and Tony Moses. “Alpha Zeta” comes off like a political manifesto set to a pulsing lounge beat. The album version of “Play the Drum” is censored–the word “shit” is scratched over.
It wouldn’t be entirely correct to rank them alongside the famous duos referenced in their press materials (most especially Guru and DJ Premier or Eric B & Rakim, whose achievements will never be matched), it is certainly true that Zeph & Azeem have done a nice piece of work here that deserves to be heard more widely. The fact that Om Records released this argues quite well for their own relevance, too.
Om Hip Hop: www.omhiphop.com